January 2014 – London Calling!

I had the good fortune to serve as a faculty chaperone on a student study abroad trip to London (and Paris).  This blog serves as a journal and travelogue.

We rented cars and drove to Chicago in cold, snowy conditions.  I drove a Nissan Altima, which was quite nice.  We parked in an outlying lot, caught a plane out of O’Hare and flew overnight to London’s Heathrow.  I got very little sleep on that redeye.  We dropped our bags at the hotel and commenced our bus tour of major London landmarks.  Unfortunately, we were kind of tired, and there was much nodding off on the bus.  We had lunch at a pub, where I had shepherd’s pie.  It was good, much like the first of many English ales I consumed.  I later learned that Fuller’s ales are still brewed in London, and served at 50 F (not warm) so that one can taste them better.  We saw Big Ben and the London Eye at night.  We went up in the Eye (a big Ferris wheel), which gave a sweeping view of the city.  Westminster Abbey was very impressive.  The tombs of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were most moving to me. Photography is not allowed inside.  Neither are hats, as it is still a functioning church. Winston Churchill’s war rooms in Whitehall were neat to see, and not much different from the way they are depicted in movies!

London 1

We took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel under the English Channel to France and continued on to Paris. I believe I could enjoyably spend a summer just photographing quaint churches in the little villages sprinkled about the French countryside. We toured the Pantheon, which was luckily free that day, and saw where many of France’s famous dead are entombed. Of course, we joked that the Curies were still glowing. We saw the Eiffel Tower at night. It was spectacular, though  a 25-knot gale was blowing on top, which made things kind of chilly, but it was worth it. I never thought I’d see the Eiffel Tower. The next day we had brunch at the local cafe down the street from the hotel. We went to the Louvre and spent a couple of hours there, though it would take a couple of weeks to see it all. The students were having fun photographing “sassy baby Jesus” in the religious iconography. After we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa, I explored on my own. I had to get to the second floor, and they sure don’t make it easy to find. Ultimately, I found my way there, and enjoyed interpreting the paintings. This is where I began my series of selfies with nudes that I posted on Facebook. I don’t think I ever got so many comments or likes before. We went to a lengthy row of tourist-centered shops along a street next to the Louvre. I found a few things for Stacey and Savannah. I bought one item for 4 euros and handed the shopkeeper a five. He said “Thank you” and closed the till. I hesitated and he said, “No, change today”. I said, “Yeah, right.” He smiled, opened it back up and gave me a euro. I wonder how many times per day that act works for him. We ate crepes for dinner and took the Eurostar back to London.

Paris

We went to the British Museum.  I had chicken pie for lunch.  I enjoyed looking at the native American displays, especially their weapons and means of catching food.  There was a small zoological collection, including a tragic painting of the now-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Some of the antiquities were nice, especially those extracted from Nimrud, which were in excellent condition.  We went to see the musical “Billy Elliot” that night at the Victoria Palace Theatre, a a very ornate, old venue. The play was well written, choreographed, staged and acted.  It seemed to follow the movie fairly closely, from what I remember of it.
The following day was a free day.  I had hoped to go out to Charles Darwin’s house, but they were closed.  So I went with my second choice, The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a short train ride away.  I knew the trees would be leafless, and flowers would be few, but the greenhouse was spectacular.  There was an entire orchid room and two for carnivorous plants (tropical and temperate).  They were doing a lot of off-season maintenance on the place.  The upside was that there were few other visitors, mostly Mums with prams.   I was walking through an area of oaks and thought, “Wow, that looks just like the coast live oak from California.”  I looked at the monument, which read, “Quercus agrifolia.”  I was right!  They had a really nice display of “People and Plants,” which we’d call economic botany.  It was fascinating, and I’d love to squeeze in another lecture on this in Plant Field Biology.  Kew also had a canopy walk, a Japanese gate, and a 10-story pagoda.  I got some mileage out of the place.  For lunch I chose the sandwich with the least strange combination of ingredients: tuna, sweet corn and lettuce.  I had brought the wrong camera battery charger with me on this trip.  To conserve battery for later, I used my camera phone for a couple of days.  It did force me to learn the capabilities of the camera phone, at least. That night we went on the Jack the Ripper walking tour.  Our tour guide was really funny and extremely knowledgeable.  In fact, he had written a book on it.
Kew
We took a bus to Stonehenge.  The guides were really funny.  We had to take an alternate route because southern England was enduring some flooding.  I could relate.  We passed one of those big, old chalk patterns carved into the ground.  The new visitors center at Stonehenge had just opened with the new year.  It was quite nice, having a virtual Stonehenge inside, projected in a surround, and showing the stones throughout the centuries and during the solstices.  The real Stonehenge was everything I thought it would be: big, imposing, mysterious.  It’s surprising any of it is left after 5000 years.  They don’t let visitors wander around among the stones any more.  That’s good for me, as I didn’t get too many people in my photos.  There’s a low fence all the way around so I could photograph it from all angles.  The bonus was that it turned out to be a rare sunny day, which gave me good lighting.  In spite of the sun, it was really cold, with a steady wind.  So when we went to the old city of Bath afterward, I bought some bargains: new gloves, a fleece and long underwear.  Bath was really neat.  The buildings are all built in the same style, even  the new ones.  There are dozens and dozens of little shops, and street performers everywhere.  I discovered on this trip that I like to photograph street performers, and I don’t mind contributing a little for the privilege.  Our last stop was a “secret place”, a very old town.  The home that served as Harry Potter’s original house in Godrick Hollow was there.  We had an ale in the old pub.
Stonehenge & Bath
The Tower of London was much larger than I expected.  After a tour by a witty Yeoman Warder (AKA Beefeater), we wandered about at will.  I liked the torture room, of course.  We had lunch at another old, ornate pub.  I had a delicious hamburger.  We went to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but could not get in, as a service was about to start soon.  We walked out on the Millenium Bridge, which was used in one of the Harry Potter movies.  I suppose I’ll have to watch them all over again to see these sights.  It was a good time for night photography, and I got some good shots of bridges and buildings.  We had a free night and I went to see the musical “We Will Rock You” at the Dominion Theatre.  I went alone, which was probably good.  I was a total idiot: clapping, singing and waving my hands.  I love the music of Queen.  Though perhaps not as well written as Billy Elliot, it was highly enjoyable.  

Tower of London & British Museum

It was a short tube ride to the Portobello Road Market, a mile-long double row of street vendors, plus brick-and-mortar stores.  It took all morning to see it.  In spite of the dizzying array of offerings, from antiques to clothing to trinkets, I bought very little.  I did get in some street photography.  I like fruit stands because they have color, texture and pattern.  There was a trio of street performers that I really liked, the Hightown Crows.  The drummer had a beat up snare and a cymbal. His bass drum was an old suitcase, with another cymbal bungeed on top.  He had great rhythm, but resembled a Dickensian character.  The bass player had a beautiful, apparently new stand-up bass with fresh graphics painted on.  He was a scary looking guy, covered in tattoos, and rough.  The guitar player, who also handled lead vocals, was the most normal looking.  He had some good licks and used the distortion pedal sparingly.  Their style is hard to characterize, but they reminded me a little of Calexico.  I bought their CD.  We stopped at another spot to see a Police Box, well known as the Tardis by Doctor Who fans.
   In the afternoon we went to Harrod’s which I hated.  After 5 minutes I left for Picadilly Circus.  This being Saturday, the trains were packed.  I couldn’t get on the first one, and barely made the second.  I saw room enough on the floor for my feet, and figured there’d be room enough above for the rest of me.  I was almost right.  The door hit my head as it closed.  I rode four stops cheek by jowl with the other travelers.  Picadilly circus was absolutely jumping.  I wandered about and saw a bunch of shops.  I got a deal on a hat at a big sporting good store.  I watched some good street performers, including beat boxers and dancers.  There was free WiFi in this area so I leaned against a wall and caught up with Stacey.  At this time I was confronted with what I believe to be a con artist.  He walks around a crowded square asking specifically targeted people for a pound for train fare.  He flashes 3 or 4 pounds in his hand to imply that he almost has enough.  He’s clean, but covered in a long coat so that his dress cannot be assessed.  If his request is refused, he plays the race card, which is almost guaranteed to produce the desired result through guilt.  It almost worked on me.  I wonder how much he makes in a typical night?
Portobello Road market
We got up early for the next day, a long one of travel: 9-hour flight followed by 5-hour drive.  I didn’t get much sleep on the plane, and so notched a 22-hour day.  It took about a week to shake off the jet lag.  
Overall, it was a trip of a lifetime.  The bucket-list sights were too many to mention.  The students were a really good group, and there were no major problems.  I hope that I am able to do it again.
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December 2013 — end of year

I haven’t posted a blog since September, and here I thought that being on sabbatical I would have lots of extra time.  It hasn’t worked out that way.  I’ve been traveling to various meetings and catching up on minor projects.  I think I’ll just post some pics with minimal commentary.

Above you’ll see the last insect images of the year, mostly from October.  Things cooled down quickly.  A few fungi.  Some reflections in Sugar Creek from our trip to Crawfordsville.  Some shots from our trip to Austin, as well.  It had been slow for photography.

Now that the eagles are back, and in a big way, I’ve been catching up.  I finally got one catching a fish right in front of me, along with plenty of follow-through shots.  I’ve been trying to get a shot like that for years.  Bob Benton was there too.
At the end of the year, Google took random samples of my images and assembled them into a brief video here:
I thought I could do better, and created my own to post on YouTube:
Another thing Google does via Picasa is to assemble bursts of images into brief animations.  With this method I’ve made some clips of eagles catching fish.  Here’s the best one:
2013 sure had its ups and downs.  Tomorrow I head for London.  It should be an interesting way to start off the New Year!